One way I am beginning to talk differently about racism in America


Jesus’ words often break through my layers of resistance over time. It rarely happens immediately. But once they break through, I am helplessly sucked into a level of obsession that can only be rivaled by my pre-schooler on Pizza and a Movie Night. They occupy my thoughts in ways I never knew possible and I begin to see their applicability in nearly every avenue of life.

Recently the words that have found their way into my obsessive consciousness are found in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is talking to some Chief Priests and Elders. They challenge Him by asking where His authority comes from and He responds with a parable–not abnormal for this radical Rabbi.

The parable is a story about two sons and their father. The father owns a vineyard and asks both of the sons to work that day. The first son refuses, but later does the work asked of him. The second son agrees to do the work, but never gets around to it. Jesus then poses a question to the religious elite before Him–“Which of the two did the will of his father?”

It seems like Jesus is suggesting that Intentions, when compared to reality, are utterly meaningless. This reading has cut into my heart and is continuing to force me to ask difficult questions. These questions are exposing innumerable inconsistencies between my own intentions and the reality I am actively working toward.

It is through this lens that I have been thinking about racism. If you listen really close to the national conversation, you will hear this distinction in many areas. Those claiming racism are pointing to what they see as daily realities while those arguing against their claims are pointing to pure intentions.

One such example has been on my mind a lot thanks to a co-worker who is doing a great deal of work in seminary around understanding Food Deserts and their impact on urban areas across the country. A Food Desert, according to the USDA, is

“a low income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a super-market or grocery store.”

I might be naive, but I imagine that the vast majority of people in our country–including those who are major players in the world of grocery stores and super-markets–are in no way intending to perpetuate hardship for others based on their income level and race. I think most of us would agree that the Intention in this case is clearly not racist.

However when one looks at the reality, a different story emerges. Here is a map of Food Deserts in America. In Denver, the neighborhoods identified as Food Deserts are overwhelmingly black and brown in demographic. When a friend of mine shared his perspective on systemic racism including Food Deserts, I pushed back a bit. His response was simple and eye opening. “Ben, do some research and see if you can find one single Food Desert in Denver that is in a predominately white neighborhood.” I did that research. I couldn’t find one. I became aware that while the intentions might not have been racist, I wasn’t sure the reality could be called anything else.

This type of statistic is also found in many other areas like Education, Healthcare, and Criminal Justice. So the question plaguing today is: Can we change the way we talk about racism in America? I wonder if it is possible to acknowledge at the same time that few people intend for our society to be racist AND that many parts of our society are racist.

This feels to me like one of those “Eyes to see and Ears to hear” moments. Many of my friends would tell me that my assumption that the intention of racism is absent is incredibly naive. Other friends of mine will tell me that I am choosing to see racism where it really isn’t present. Even so, It is my hope that we can start talking about racism differently, and more authentically. It is my hope that we can begin to experience a consistency between our intentions and the reality we are actively working toward. I believe that the future of our society depends on it.

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